Stop the Presses: PEP, an alternative to GREDA

 

by Mike Kroll

 

For many years I have been highly critical of the organizations that have handled economic development for Galesburg and Knox County. I have always tried to not just take pot shots (however easy the target) but endeavored to offer suggestions of alternative approaches only to be ignored and dismissed as an opponent to progress, growth or economic development. This is the customary method of parrying any form of criticism and the way occasionally defiant elected officials are strong-armed into quiet acquiescence whenever they speak out critically, however mildly. In this way, like so many other things in Galesburg, the status quo is maintained merely because people are made afraid to even suggest (much less implement) change even when incontrovertible evidence that the current approach does not work is impossible to ignore.

I am about to suggest a bold alternative approach that is simultaneously both revolutionary and a common-sense answer to the ever-present question: “If what we are doing is so bad describe a better way.” Will what I am about to suggest result in immediate or even short-term economic development success? Most likely not. But we have had a quarter-century of economic development failure even as our public investment has gone up. What I can assure you is that my approach will yield immediate and long-lasting dividends for all Galesburg citizens and visitors alike. But first we must evaluate the existing economic development effort.

Galesburg's present approach to economic development is essentially the same as that taken in most Illinois communities and, as far as I can determine, with similar results. Try as I might to identify a community outside of metropolitan Chicago with a successful economic development strategy I simply couldn't. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of failures that mirror the Galesburg experience.

Economic development success stories are few and far between and most often seemingly have little to do with local economic development efforts yet, just as in Galesburg, the local economic development group always claims credit. Typically there is little evidence that the local economic development group did more than pop us as the deal was closed. Frequently they arrange for an ex post facto incentive package that is tangential with the decision to locate there but will be graciously accepted nonetheless. Most often economic development success appears to be the result of favorable geography and demography plus the exigencies of short-term economics rather than the product of finely crafted local economic development efforts.

It is for these reasons that there are virtually no medium to large industrial projects to be attracted to the Galesburg area and hence the traditionally defined objective of our economic development effort is, realistically, unattainable. Unlike Peoria or the Quad Cities, Galesburg is not favored with industrially attractive geography. We do not sit upon a major river, lake or ocean; we do not possess a large available population of highly skilled and well educated workers; and we do not possess as quality of life that distinguishes Galesburg from any other small Midwestern community.

When the founders of Galesburg chose this spot they wanted to locate a small college in a remote area of the plains where the citizens could successfully farm and raise a family insulated from the corrupting influences of teaming cities. It was only years later that local merchants and bankers saw economic benefit in attracting the railroad and bringing industry and broader commerce to the Galesburg area. For most of Galesburg existence, and especially before the arrival of the railroad, the slow speed of travel required that geographic regions be largely self-sustaining. This meant that industrial operations were necessarily smaller and withing a trading region very diverse to meet the range of needs for that region. The arrival of the railroad greatly expanded the size of these trading regions and reduced the diversity of local economies but the near death of American manufacturing only came as a consequence of unfettered international trade, the overseas availability of ample cheap labor and, most importantly, America's loss of self-control as we embrace greed and short-term economic advantage at the expense of all other concerns. This is why even geographically and demographically blessed American cities no longer retain their once mighty industry much less regularly attract new industry.

To be successful today a community needs at least three things: a diverse, vibrant and self-sustaining population; a dependable tax base to support both necessary public infrastructure and services that make a community viable; and the necessary as well as supplemental amenities that truly make a community an attractive place in which to live. All three of these are necessary for a community's success. Our emphasis on economic development has been an example of misplaced priorities. Local jobs are nice and beneficial to the community but not necessary if employment opportunities are available nearby. On the other hand employment opportunities will not exist in the absence of available workers that a quality community provides.

I am proposing that we abandon the costly and futile effort to attract industry to Galesburg and instead focus on retaining and attracting people to Galesburg. Let us replace GREDA with PEP, the Population Enhancement Project.

Instead of squandering resources on economic development let us invest resources and time into building and enhancing the population of Galesburg. And enhancing doesn't just mean growing in quantity, it also means improving the quality of our population. With the changing American economy we can be much more successful in attracting educated middle-class families to a quality of life that can compare favorably to that of not only large urban areas like Chicago or St. Louis but also medium urban areas like Peoria or the Quad Cities. To do this we must actually deliver the better quality of life that we claim but have not yet attained in Galesburg. Unlike GREDA's goals this can be broken down into measurable objectives and accomplished gradually yielding an identifiable return on the public investment.

For example, an increasing number of professionals work either from home or smaller satellite offices of large corporations. While the corporate home office may need to be located in a large urban area neither these workers nor those satellite offices need to be in this era of the Internet. Galesburg already compares favorably to many large cities or even their surrounding suburbs because we are less dense, boast lower housing costs and reducedincidence of crime and have good schools that could become great schools with a little effort. Our Amtrak station and reasonable proximity to Chicago provide us with more reasons to be attractive to Chicago-based corporation or its professional employees.

To make us more attractive to such such people we must invest in a better high-speed communications infrastructure withing Galesburg. It is clear that neither our telephone nor our cable company are in any hurry to invest in the necessary infrastructure here in Galesburg. A few years ago opposition from the cable company blocked the creation of a public communications infrastructure and in hindsight they may have done us a favor. It is now clear that the failed city cable system was not sufficiently ambitious and I propose that we revisit this concept with an eye toward installing a community-wide fiber optic system serving businesses, residences and public buildings alike. Wifi has been the technological cause celeb recently yet Galesburg's relatively small size makes a practical and much better alternative. Galesburg's Achilles' heel of connectivity has always been the last mile rather than connection to the Internet backbone. Other small midwestern communities have already accomplished this and we can learn from their example.

The cost of real estate, commercial and residential, is much more reasonable here than in most any urban areas and employees need not face an arduous or time-consuming commute. The high cost of home ownership in many urban areas delays many young families ability to buy their own home. This is not be true in Galesburg where housing dollars allow less affluent families to buy a home sooner and more affluent families to buy a nicer home. Time savings is a huge advantage of living in a small community where it seldom takes ten minutes to get anywhere and even a workaholic parent can thus leverage this time savings into more quality time with their children.  Today nearly all of the best and brightest of our children leave Galesburg following high school never to return as residents. This brain drain is a tremendous cost to our community yet it can be reversed by reengineering Galesburg into an attractive and accommodating location for young professionals to work from home of small local offices and raise their children in the same wholesome environment that nurtured them.

Many people have latched onto the idea of making Galesburg into a retirement community to leverage the advantage of our two hospitals. This is a good idea with two caveats. First, developing a status as an attractive retirement community must be just one facet in a multifaceted plan because Galesburg cannot sustain itself solely as a retirement community. Secondly, we must not become a retirement community solely for the financially challenged retirees. Active and financially secure retirees are an attractive population group we should target but we must remember that this group is looking for a community offering many of the same kinds of amenities and services as middle-class families (excepting perhaps schools) and they must perceive receiving real value from their tax dollars.

Likewise tourism is frequently held out as the economic savior of Galesburg. The best example of this is the much hyped Galesburg Railroad Hall of Fame. If you examine successful tourism locations you will see that the community either was fortunate enough to be located near a natural tourist attraction like mountains, national forests, oceans, lakes, etc or private investors have spent hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars creating man-made attractions. Some prime examples of the later are Las Vegas, Branson, Missouri and Orlando Florida. Neither condition is now or will likely ever be applicable to Galesburg. While we do have a variety of much smaller local attractions they cannot reasonably be expected to ever generate substantial tourist trade. In the unlikely event that the RRHoF ever gets built we must be realistic in our projections for its success and no sane person can reasonably expect it to compare to the Lincoln Museum and Library in Springfield. Deluding ourselves is simply not in the public self-interest. However, tourism can and should be a valuable asset to Galesburg and a worthwhile investment in our local PEP effort. We want outsiders to visit the community, spend some money here and perhaps discover what a great place this could be to someday live. Diane Bruning and her staff work very hard and are perhaps Galesburg's best ambassadors to outside visitors.

Before we finish this essay we must address the very real challenges facing my proposed PEP effort. For many years Galesburg has allowed its infrastructure to deteriorate. The ailing water system is merely the highest priority among many but city officials and residents alike must accept the responsibility and costs of addressing these needs beginning immediately. We must abandon the mindset that smaller government is always better and concentrate on developing efficient and effective government services along with greater citizen responsibility. Tax dollars will be required to restore Galesburg to a level where we can begin attracting middle-class families and like it or not that burden will necessarily fall upon we residents in the absence of a greater responsible corporate presence. And when we attract such a presence it must not be through tax incentives that reduce or eliminate corporate responsibility for maintaining public facilities, schools, infrastructure and services.

Galesburg's available housing stock will need work as well. The imposition of meaningful and realistic safety and habitability code requirements for investment properties must be enacted and enforced. We must eliminate the profitability of being a slumlord and insure responsible property maintenance without unnecessarily trampling on the liberties of responsible property owners. Whatever can be done to assist existing property owners rehabilitate older housing stock as owner occupied residences should become a city priority. Perhaps with the creation of a city microloan program to help finance such work. While it is the proper role of private investment to address the needs of new housing construction it is also the responsibility of public officials to encourage such reinvestment citywide.

Galesburg needs to support community arts and culture as key components of community quality of life along with a range of recreational facilities and programs, community events and festivals are also important and worthy of support. This support must be more than just tax dollars. Individuals and businesses must support such programs with both their dollars and time. As a community Galesburg must get over its self-conscience anti-intellectualism and embrace the value of thoughtful discourse and expression representing a wide array of ideas and feelings, many of which may well differ from our own. Developing greater tolerance and diversity will be key metrics in determining the success of this community reinventing itself.

The very concept of this Population Enhancement Project is that by investing in making Galesburg a better place to live will pay off immediately for existing residents while simultaneously making the community more attractive to new residents. This influx of new or returning residents will bring economic opportunity. This approach is not only totally open and accountable it is also self-sustaining and permits participation by the entire community. Given our history of economic development failure what do we have to loose? Perhaps Galesburg can become a model that others emulate rather than a recurring anecdote about the negative economic consequences of the changing American economy.

 

11/01/07